by Katie Coulthard | @coulthard_katie
Like many Australians, hearing the High Court declare offshore detention of asylum seekers and refugees as ‘legal’ provoked deep-seated feelings of frustration and anger for Reverend Mark Dunn of St John’s Uniting Church in Essendon.
“It seems ridiculous and crazy that our government would play a part in the business of potentially abusing children,” he told Catalyst this week, shortly after announcing his church is prepared to offer sanctuary to any asylum seeker facing potential deportation to Nauru or Manus Island.
“We can’t write out a blank cheque and wash our hands of responsibility.”
Last week’s High Court decision has sparked an outpour of emotion and anger amongst the wider community and prompted some church leaders to speak out and offer shelter and safety (sanctuary) to affected asylum seekers within private church property, in a physical bid to prevent their removal from Australia.
Reverend Dunn felt it was a “no brainer” decision to follow the same path of activism.
“It’s time to stand up and be counted,” he said.
So far, St John’s is the only church to publicly offer this form of assistance in Victoria.
Although the idea of sanctuary is not legally binding and church officials may face prosecution, such practice has never been tried in Australia and has the potential to test common law not yet written in history books.
“We don’t know what it would look like for the church to actually open its doors to offer sanctuary,” admits Reverend Dunn.
“There’s very little actual power we have but it’s a cause that has engaged us heart, mind and faith,” he said.
In response to similar announcements, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton has said he will not enforce officials to “drag people from churches” but has remained tight lipped on the authority law enforcement would have should such situation arise.
Despite the potential danger and likely consequences, this is a risk Reverend Dunn is willing to take.
“We believe there’s greater principles at stake than being obedient to the law,” he said.
In his role as both Reverend at St John’s and visiting chaplain to the Maribyrnong Detention Centre in Melbourne’s North-West for five years, Reverend Dunn has met enough asylum seekers to know the truth about offshore detention.
“We know from first hand accounts that these people are being traumatised and abused, their mental health is at great risk and their wellbeing severely compromised,” he said.
Although the idea of offering refuge to asylum seekers was initially the sole idea of Reverend Dunn, the St John’s Church Council voted unanimously in agreement on Saturday and co-wrote an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister, Immigration Minister Dutton and other officials concerned.
“It is morally indefensible to use the punishment of one group of people, who have not been found guilty of any crime, in an attempt to deter others,” reads the letter.
“We are punishing the victims of people smuggling and not the people smugglers.”
Already the local parish has seen a “groundswell of support” with messages, offers of help and letters of solidarity arriving each day.
“People have said they’ll supply nappies, financial support, legal assistance and medical aid,” Reverend Dunn said.
“We’re heartened by the mood out there. I hope that gives our government just cause to rethink this and have a change of heart.”
In spite of widespread protests across the country in the past week, supporting the #LetThemStay movement and sanctuary offers, the Turnbull government and majority of the opposition remain adamant deporting the 267 asylum seekers is the right solution.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who is the local member of Maribynong where St John’s Uniting Church is located, is yet to vocalise Labor’s stance on the case.
Reverend Dunn says he will be pursuing both state and federal members to seek a fair outcome for asylum seekers.
“We’re not going to lie down until we see some just resolution. Mr Shorten, as our local member, will be hearing from us.”